REO stands for Ransom Eli Olds, the designer of Oldsmobile. Ransom Olds was a brilliant man and avid entrepreneur. He was an inventor of many other things beyond automobiles.
One of the many things he invented made possible probably the first powered lawn mower. Powered by an Ideal hit and miss engine, the machine was a reel mower that was also self propelled by the striping roller, in the style of a steam roller. It was first produced in 1916: Ransom Old's contribution was the self propelled capabilities. For the weight of engines of that day, the operator couldn't have pushed that rig around without self propelled drive. The success of this rig led to a company called the Ideal Power Lawn Mower Company, incorporated in 1922. Those big clunky mowers were built up into the 1940's
However, while Ideal burned up rich men's yards across the nation, REO Motors, a separate corporation from Oldsmobile, built trucks in the 1930's and during WWII. After the war, the return to peacetime forced them to rethink an application for all the expensive factory tooling and production space purchased to fulfill wartime contracts. In 1946, during the rise of suburban culture, all the returning GI's had money and a mentality of "this could be easier!" That created a market for something as simple as the humble lawn mower, and REO made a decision to use some of the truck factory space to produce their own motorized reel mower. The Ideal mower was large and unwieldy, two things that don't make a lawnmower good for a suburban yard. The new REO mower was light but also as powerful as the heavy Ideal machines. Ideal with its Ransom Olds roots switched to new light mowers, too, but a little late to conquer much of the market.
The first REO reel mower was sold in 1946. Called the Trimalawn, it was powered with either a Briggs and Stratton NPR6 or a Clinton 700A. It was certainly an improvement over the original man powered reel mower that the operator had to push around the yard. As the reel mowers sold, and as the market responded very favorably, REO added a deluxe Royale.
As sales continued to skyrocket, REO looked to save money by making their own engine. It was 1949. Enter the classic REO slant head engine.
The legend is right: REO small engines do run backwards. The PTO runs the normal direction, though, because that shaft is actually the engine's camshaft. The decision to do that was good for reel mowers since it eliminated a need for a 2:1 gear reduction system since the camshaft PTO operated at half the RPM that the crankshaft did. However, it also shot REO in the foot from becoming an engine producer. REO engines could have been as big as Briggs, Clinton, and Lauson, but by their reverse design and necessary 2:1 reduction, the applications were limited. That is also why REO made their own funky recoil starter since a standard starter (made aftermarket even in their day by Fairbanks Morse and others) cannot work.
REO continued to prosper. In 1950, the year Ransom Olds died, four years after the first REO was made, REO had successfully cornered the power reel mower market. They introduced a suction carburetor (for the speedy Runabout) and the first electric powered lawn mower (an option on the Townhouse) In 1951 they sold their 500000 mower. REO's name was synonymous with quality but also affordability, two things that made the mower sales grow exponentially in the later 40's and early 50's.
REO had good business leadership, and they new that with their name for quality in suburban yards, they could also be a force in all aspects of power equipment. In 1954 they made their engine power a snowblower, the simply named "Snow Throw". They also introduced the Trollabout. This allowed a REO engine to be bolted at a slight angle to the bottom of a boat. Sticking a propellor on the end of the shaft drilled through the bottom of the boat allowed the REO engine to become an inboard power unit. Humorously, the Trollabout never really took off. Maybe that was because a high REO executive hurried the process of installing a unit into a rowboat for a publicity shot in front of radio and TV personalities. The hurried installation leaked, and the boat capsized in front of the nation. Somehow that might have contributed to a lack of sales!
Reel mowers were complicated to sharpen and expensive to produce. Although the deluxe models could also be self propelled, they could be heavy, and they were not champions at tackling high grass. In the early 1950's, companies began producing vertical shaft lawn mowers. Light weight, powerful, and easy to maintain, it was easy to see where the market was going.
Engine manufacturers like Briggs and Clinton scrambled to produce vertical shaft engines to enter that market. Up until then, there was really no application for vertical shaft engines. Suddenly, the market saw Briggs desperately trying to flip a Model N on its back and Clinton engineering ways to keep the V700 lubricated and working on its back, while groups like Lauson scrapped the idea of converting a horizontal design to vertical and produced a complete dedicated vertical lawn mower engine.
REO watched like the old man who thought the world wouldn't change. The management said that reel mowers were still the best way to mow the yard. Although that might be true (nothing beats a manicured reel mower cut) the customers disagreed. REO dealers requested something to compete with the myriads of rotary mower brands cutting out sales right and left.
In 1953, REO responded by offering three rotary mowers. The Flying Cloud used the classic four cycle REO engine, the Revo-Jet was powered by a two stroke vertical shaft Power Products, while the Electra-Lawn followed REO's pioneering entrance into electric mowers. The Flying Cloud, though, became a public relations nightmare. Using the standard horizontal shaft REO engine, the engineers designed a right angle gearbox to power the blade. Although the idea was good and it was a less expensive way to penetrate the rotary mower market, the gearbox had a defect. A little washer used as a spacer on the engine PTO going into the gearbox was not secured by a tab to the casting. That little washer would begin to spin as the engine wore down the shims. Suddenly the washer would disentegrate and send metal all through the gearbox and engine oil with devastating results. REO responded quickly, recalling 5000 engines. The damage was done, though, to both REO's budget and REO's reputation.
REO Motors was still hard at work in the truck market, and they made a business decision to sell the REO lawn mower line to the Motor Wheel Corporation in September 1954. Motor Wheel was a conglomerate of a wheel manufacturing division and even an electric heater division.
Motor Wheel was interested in chasing the rotary mower market. In 1955, the REO engine was redesigned complete to allow it to lay on its back, becoming a true vertical shaft engine, the model 3330J. They also introduced the Ride-A-Lawn, a self propelled reel mower that accepted a sulky, a popular model.
However, in 1958, Tecumseh/Lauson knocked on REO's door and proposed to build a Lauson engine with the REO name. REO had had a relationship with Tecumseh's Power Products division for years, and Motor Wheel was already looking disappointedly at the tried and true REO power plant. It was 9 years old, heavy (still made of cast iron while the competition was beginning to move towards aluminum) and expensive to produce. Motor Wheel jumped at Tecumseh proposition, and they offered 5 engine designs that ended up morphing to 10 before 1959 was over. 1959 was also the last year of the legendary Royale, the premium reel mower of its day.
By 1963, Motor Wheel was tired of the REO line. REO's name in rotary mowers was never powerful, while they had been surpassed numerous times in the rotary mower market. The public had also not forgotten the Flying Cloud debacle. Wheel Horse bought the REO name and products from Motor Wheel in September, 1963. Wheel Horse sold a riding mower, the REO Snow Throw (seemingly the reason for the buy out) and a couple models of rotary mowers. For those models, the Wheel Horse name was coupled to the REO name. The REO name in lawn and garden equipment was on life support.
When it was dropped in favor of Wheel Horse only right before the AMC purchase in 1974, the REO name had died quietly in its sleep, ending a short but stellar career while leaving a legend.
Article by Ben Wagner, owner of Old Paths Equipment
Originally posted in our Lawn Mower forum in response to the thread: Does anyone know some of the history of REO?
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